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A Letter Concerning Puerto Rico

September 3, 2019

Fossil Free PC(USA) sent a delegation to Puerto Rico in July 2019 to witness for ourselves the work of recovery following Hurricane Maria in 2017 and to learn from those who are steering the rebuilding in ways that are sustainable through alternative energy, food sovereignty, and community development. While away, I sent this pastoral letter back to the White Plains Presbyterian Church to serve as the message for the day. It was read by Norma Smile on August 4, 2019.

Psalm 19         Philippians 1:1-11

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To all the saints in White Plains, gathered in the (hopefully) cool air of the Church House to celebrate the Great Feast of Thanksgiving: grace and peace to you in the name of our Creator, in whom we live and move and have our being. Like Saint Paul, I thank my God every time I remember you. May the love and justice of Jesus Christ be yours this day.

I send greetings to Pastor Lynn, who leads you in the worship today as a steward of the mysteries of God, having herself just returned from what I hope was a restorative vacation, and to Ty and Patty as they lead you in musical praise. As you sing songs and hymns that turn your hearts to God, as you listen to the scriptures read and present yourselves to be used in mission, as you make your offerings to support our shared ministry, I am with you in spirit at the Lord’s Table. I am in Naples, Florida, this morning where I worship with my mother and her pastor. I will be remembering you in my prayers. Please remember me in yours. We ARE one body.

I have returned from my ten-day mission in Puerto Rico. Our fourteen member delegation was commissioned by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and sponsored by Fossil Free PC(USA) to walk with the people of Puerto Rico. It was a great honor and privilege to do so. Who knew it would turn out to be such an historic moment? Over the last three weeks the entire island of Puerto Rico rose up in nonviolent protest – with strikes and mass engagements, with song and dance and the banging of pots! – to throw out a corrupt government, and resist U.S. imperialism. With shouts and tears they grieved the previously unacknowledged deaths caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly two years ago, and the inadequate response our federal government. I am confident you have been following the news. I know you have had no little anxiety for my safety. You told me so before I left. You sent me with “words of blessing” that I have held in trust; and I have carried, and still carry, the paper blessing given to me by Cora Fenton. I assure you that what newspapers presented as political unrest has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life. A people alive, free, and united in hope and resolve. Everything has changed in Puerto Rico.

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According to the United States, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated territory,” yet everyone down here knows that the island is a colony. There is a long history of resource extraction, military occupation, political repression, forced sterilization (more than one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized), medical experimentation, and taxation without representation. All of Puerto Rico’s consumables must be delivered on U.S. ships, which means goods often cost three times what they do in the states. The island has become a corporate tax haven for the elite. And while Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and enjoy certain political rights to assembly and speech, etc., they are not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. And so the revolutionary moment down here has been about much more than offensive chats and corrupt politicians – things we are ALL familiar with. The protests in Puerto Rico have been as much about the federally managed austerity program and continued dependency that, if it continues, will leave most Puerto Ricans without a viable future. By the end of this year it is estimated that nearly half-a million will have fled the island. There will be, I am sure, a backlash from the U.S. because of this moment. The Puerto Rican people are bracing for it. On Friday, the Trump administration announced that much expected FEMA aid has been tabled because of “unrest” and “corruption.” But corruption, capitalism and colonialism are all faces of the same reality, and it is THIS that Puerto Ricans have risen up against. I can only imagine the anxiety this hopeful moment brings to those of you who have participated in decolonization movements in your own countries, particularly here in the Caribbean. Yet the Puerto Rican people, once risen, will not be put back down. As they chanted in the streets, “They took EVERYTHING from us, even our fear.” Joy and dignity will carry the day.

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We did not come to Puerto Rico, of course, to witness “The Rising,” but to learn about climate change, resilience, and the strength of the Puerto Rican people during this time of recovery. While we were there we experienced some of the hottest days on record. We spoke with those who lost their homes and are struggling to rebuild, we saw with our own eyes the amazing work being done by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and we learned how communities came together to care for one another.

I want to share with you this morning just one story today, about our delegation’s visit to a community in the Southeast of the Island under the imposing presence of Mount Guilarte.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) believes that the mission and purpose of the church is to be “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.” This is exactly what I experienced on our third day in Puerto Rico when we visited Casa Pueblo in heart of Adjuntas. Stepping into Casa Pueblo was like stepping into the gospel story itself – it was a foretaste of the Reign of God.

Casa Pueblo opened its doors in 1980 as a resistance movement began mobilizing to oppose government and corporate plans to authorize open-pit mining in the pristine and geologically unique mountain communities of Adjuntas. Open pit mining, as I witnessed it in Guatemala two years ago, is horrifically destructive. Though the hills around Adjuntas had proven gold, silver and copper resources, the proposed extraction process would destroy both the beauty and bio-diversity of the region as well as pollute the local watershed feeding the Rio Grande de Arecibo, a major source of water for costal communities. During the long fight against the mining industry, Casa Pueblo provided a much-needed center for culture expression, community empowerment, democratic decision-making, and the sharing of technical information. As Alexis Mossal-Gonzales, the founder of Casa Pueblo, would often say, “Science + Culture + Community = Change.” The first organized event against the mines took place in 1980 and attracted exactly one person. One person! When, fifteen years later, in 1995, the government finally decided to permanently ban mining in Puerto Rico, more than ten thousand showed up to celebrate together with song and dance and festivity. Science + Culture + Community = Change (and ultimately celebration).

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From Protest to Proposal: If this first stage of Casa Pueblo’s mobilization necessarily placed it at the center of community PROTEST, the second stage was one of PROPOSING alternative futures. This was, admittedly, long and hard work. During the two decades that followed the victory over the mining companies, Casa Pueblo transformed itself into a center of sustainability and resilience, installing its now famous off-grid solar system, growing and selling local produce, marketing and serving its own coffee, providing a venue for artisan crafts, running a community radio station in a region without stable telecommunications, opening a butterfly garden for children, teaching new methods of agriculture, and offering classes in and a performance venue for art and music. It has also helped establish the first ever community-controlled forest in Puerto Rico, the Bosque del Pueblo, protecting the resources of the region for the future. They are now working on establishing a protected green corridor through the mountains in which they have opened a ‘forest school’ for environmental and conservation education. These are provisional demonstrations of another world that is both possible and necessary. And the list of demonstration projects goes on. Earlier this year Casa Pueblo initiated #50ConSol, a campaign calling for 50 percent of Puerto Rico’s power to come from the sun, “which shines 365 days of the year.”

For all this work, Casa Puebla has received numerous recognitions, including the Goldman Environmental Prize. But Alexis Massol-Gonzales, the founder of Casa Pueblo, would say that he does what he does at Casa Pueblo not only because it is good work and the right thing to do, but because it makes him happy. As we spent a day with Don Alexis early that happiness was expressed in his warm and easy smile, and the source of that happiness is everywhere evident at Casa Pueblo. I look forward to showing you my photos.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 21, 2017, the island was plunged into a month’s long (and in many places much longer) blackout. But the solar lights at Casa Pueblo remained on. Casa Pueblo became what Naomi Klein has called a self-sustaining solar oasis: “Like moths to a flame, people from all over the hills of Adjuntas made their way to the warm and welcoming light.” Casa Pueblo quickly became the center of community renewal. The radio kept broadcasting, food continued to be served, emergency health facilities were set up, FEMA applications (which must be completed online) were able to be filled our and filed, and neighbors could refrigerate life-saving medicine. In the coming months, more than 10,000 free solar lamps were distributed, bringing light into the darkness of every home, and by these lights Puerto Rico saw its future. Casa Pueblo not only saved lives, it offered hope. Hope, not just for surviving the present crisis, but for building a different and better future.

“Faith is not only hope,” he told us, citing scripture, “but acts.”

As I thought about our own congregation’s divestment from fossil fuels in 2015, our installation of solar power in 2017, and the resiliency center currently being worked on by Elders Kathy Dean, Heather Norman and myself – as I think about all that we do in and for our community – I continuously gave thanks for YOU and urgently wanted to be back with you to think about what God is calling us to next. I am on vacation now, a stored up need for sabbath rest, but will see look forward to seeing you in a few weeks.

I send you greetings from Michelle Muñiz, Disaster Recovery Coordinator in Puerto Rico, who thanks us for our faithful support for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She invites us to return and work with her in the continuing work of recovery and to enjoy the beautiful island. Are you up for it? With this letter comes a love and hugs from Rev. José González-Colón, pastor of the Iglesia Presbiteriana in Hato Rey and Moderator of the Synod of Puerto Rico, who was our host in San Juan. He has promised to join us White Plains very soon. Words of admiration and encouragement are yours from abby mohaupt, the chair of Fossil Free PC(USA), who hopes to see some of us at the Presbyterian General Assembly next summer in Baltimore.

In Christ, who is our new reality,

Pastor Jeff

 

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